Great Lake Swimmers
ilence is a major value in Native American culture," Marquette University professor Diane Long Hoeveler tells us, "for silence is the token of acceptance, the symbol of peace and serenity, and the outward expression of harmony between the human and natural worlds." What Hoeveler fails to divulge is the Native Americans' forced removal from their lands was also committed to silence: at the bayonet point, bearing nothing but scars, disgrace, and disdain slicing out the tongues of five thousand on a one thousand-mile journey.
The Wyandots once exiled in silence: harried by Iroquois, their dispersion extended from the St. Lawrence Valley to Niagara Falls to the present site of Toronto (and beyond); rawhide bags stuffed with red beans and squash slung upon shoulders, birch bark canoes dragged through dry earth; bound by chains of despair, their garlands of celebration long dead behind them. Ontario native Tony Dekker is retracing the footfalls of the Wyandot, the Great Lake Swimmers frontman exuding an affection for uncluttered simplicity, a holy-man mysticism (and not just because recent publicity photos have him impersonating an All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison). Scratching a nomad's itch, he indulges in a devotion to Mother Earth that nearly collapses into idolatry. "I'm really looking forward to playing in Canmore, Alberta," he recently said. "It's going to be great to do the drive across Canada." We hear Banff is stunning this time of year.
But most telling is Dekker's fondness for silence—more specifically, the places where silence thrives and how an artist can achieve a dichotomy of dispelling / preserving that silence as delicately as possible. The Great Lake Swimmers' first two albums were recorded at a pair of ghostly locations in Ontario: Dekker moiling in an abandoned grain silo on the outskirts of Port Colborne and an empty church in Long Beach. They are records wisped with moss-soft, natural reverb and ellipsised with touches of wilderness silence; ambient folk with guitar picking of rustling-pine-needles volume, and little else in terms of instrumentation. Post-silent pop, if you will.
Recorded at London, Ontario's 19th-century Aeolian Hall, Ongiara finds Great Lake Swimmers filling out their sound, bowing to recent acts like Grizzly Bear and the down-tempo offerings of Papercuts, yet still preserving the guitar-driven, web-delicate qualities that made the first two albums so endearing. Instruments never trespass on Dekker's placid, echoing soundscapes, they only reinforce the mood: the electric knock-knocks and the violin creeping of Owen Pallett (from Final Fantasy) on "Put There by the Land"; the crumbling organ on "Catcher Song"; the blood-warm drone of the wurlitzer piano on "There Is a Light."
There are sparse numbers, too, harkening back to Great Lake Swimmers' previous efforts: the dusky, lantern-lit "Passenger Song" and the pedal steel-driven "I Became Awake." This sonic minimum puts the emphasis on Dekker's vocal work, which evokes comparisons to Sam Beam and Will Oldham. On the aforementioned "Catcher Son," his voice arrows through the black tar of the night skies, bounces 'round the neon folds of the aurora borealis before landing in a lake, turning the water to liquid gold. Roborant, haunting, throated in autumn flaxen—and perfect for the album's lyrical motif. Tapping into a childhood spent in the rural, southern reaches of Ontario (Wainfleet, to be exact), Dekker explores mankind's kinship with nature and our most vexing conundrum in the modern age (and something indigenous peoples touched upon four centuries ago): travel the road to technology or travel the road to spirituality?
Thanks to the personifying "Your Rocky Spine" ("Floating over your rocky spine / The glaciers made you, and now you're mine") and the physical / emotional landscape exploration in "Changing Colours" ("But don't be afraid to change your colors now / I've known you all summer, and you rose above it all"), we're certain what road Dekker selected. Calumet in one hand, tattered map of the Golden Horseshoe in the other, the Great Lake Swimmers' medicine man breaks silence with spiritual folk of the most affecting variety.